Recently, Beyonce released the video for her single “Video Phone.”
M. Dot took the opportunity to look at Beyoncé’s lyrics in the context of the societal position of African American men and women. In the comments to her post, commenter Luna put up a link to theory friction practice, a blog that is definitely being added to my must read list. With the tagline “queering everything” the unnamed blogger (who I will refer to as TFP) throws a wrench into existing feminist narratives surrounding Beyoncé by pointing out subversive elements in “Video Phone.” As a refresher, here’s the video:
In a post titled “(m) Beyonce’s postmodern politic: feminism and videophone,” TFP writes:
The sheer number of pop culture, art, and political references TPF catches is astounding: later in the piece, he refers to both Bettie Page and Abu Ghraib and how those types of images/iconography play out in the visual landscape of the song. However, one point in particular jumps out about TPF’s analysis:
Beyoncé is actively engaged with the gaze of the camera in “Video Phone,” and as TPF states it is both subversive and conservative. The act can be seen as conservative because the poses and costuming in the videos reinforces the dynamics of the dominant media narrative about women, sex, and agency. In Dreamworlds 3, Sut Jhally explains how the language of the dreamworld in music videos is clear – women are to be viewed as consumables, available for the enjoyment of the male gaze.
As Jhally explains:
This paradox is where Beyoncé has carved out her career.
I enjoy Beyoncé as a performer, and as someone who consistently churns out club hits. However, the race/gender analyst in me tends to work overtime when consuming the media she releases, as much of her body of work plays – deliberately? – on that complicated border. While the images in “Video Phone’ may be subversive, Beyoncé’s videography paints a detailed picture of gender relations in a heterosexual context – one which is applauded by mainstream culture. Generally, her singles are about attracting male attention (for the first time, in a relationship, or post break up), deeming that she does not need male attention because she has money (which, by extension, represents freedom), or props up the idea of a woman’s role in the relationship as being subordinate to a man’s. For every ‘Survivor,” (which has lyrics that are not gendered) there are faux empowerment anthems like “Independent Women,” “Single Ladies,” “Bills, Bills, Bills,” which focus on cash flow being central to a relationship or to a woman’s independence.
Many of her collaborations follow the same script, like her vocals on “I Got That” with rapper Amil, which has a chorus of “don’t need you ’cause the rent is due/ you can be outta here baby/ because I got it.” Beyoncé’s presentation makes this sound like empowerment – telling someone else where to get off is always fun and she laces her honeyed vocals with a heavy dose of swagger. But underneath the lyrics, the fact remains that the woman Beyoncé portrays always defines herself against a man, and any empowerment she receives is from severing herself from one man into the arms of another (See: “Irreplaceable”) or attracting more male attention.
With that being said, it is hard to separate Beyoncé as a performer from those around her, such as video producers, directors, and choreographers who may find a way through her presentation to articulate a different type of gender politic.